Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoned

by berv

I had downloaded the demo to Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning about a week ago, watched the intro cutscene, ran into graphical issues, and promptly uninstalled it, but yesterday’s launch event persuaded me to give it another try.

First, I’d like to talk about the launch event. A sizeable number of popular videogame webcasters, many of whom I recognized from Starcraft 2 casts, agreed to promote the game on launch day by streaming themselves playing it. Being able to check in with each of these personalities as they explored the game did a great deal to win me over to the merits of the game. Seeing each enjoy the game despite their different approaches and in-game character builds drew me in and, on a basic level, made me want to have the same fun they were having.  Additionally, some of the streams featured interviews with particular bigs involved in the game (Curt Schilling, R.A. Salvatore, Todd McFarlane, Ken Ralston), which added a little bit of additional spice to the presentation and context for the product. All this was combined with periodic giveaways of the game itself and larger sweepstakes running over the course of the day to produce a very successful kick off and managed to get me excited about a game I had given up on.

Initially, I had balked at the game’s story as laid out in the intro, as it appeared terribly generic and the world quite traditional in its approach to fantasy. I haven’t changed my mind on this point, as I ran into a fairly conventional series of quests given by a fairly conventional series of characters in a fairly conventional setting. I’m pretty spent on classic fantasy at this point, which is one of the reasons why I found the unique setting of Bastion so compelling (I haven’t written about it, but damn that is a fine game). I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the creature design in Amalur, which I might chalk up to McFarlane’s involvement. Creatures I’d heard of before (e.g. sprites, boggarts), were visually represented in some imaginative and surprisingly endearing ways. Lumpen and quirky, the denizens of the forest almost made me wish I didn’t have to kill them.

Speaking of which, KoA:R contains some of the most enjoyable third-person-over-the-shoulder combat I’ve played in quite a while. You can bring two weapons into battle, which can be quickly switched between to adapt to the situation. I found that each type of weapon (e.g. longsword, hammer, chakram, sceptre, knives, etc.) was completely distinct from the others and actually gave me a reason to switch them up. My first run had me peppering enemies from afar with a magic sceptre to buy me enough time to charge up my staff’s area attack, where my second had me grabbing enemies with a Scorpion-style grappling hook, getting in a few good hits with my hammer, then finishing them off with a quick series of knife attacks. The fact that both were very different but still viable and fun to play excited me quite a bit about the range of possibilities. To further deepen the combat, the character progression system allows you to unlock special attacks for certain weapons by assigning points to talent trees, but is built in such a way that you’re never locked in to a single type of weapon.

This variety of possible builds and choice in approach to combat sets my imagination off, and even now I can’t stop thinking about how much x+y+z would totally kick ass. So why have I stopped playing? Because, as enjoyable as each particular loadout is, each requires you to run around in the world *not* enjoying that loadout. What I’m referring to are the quests that populate the world, requiring you to find x or kill y, which you must perform in order to earn skill points or fancier weapons or what have you. And, to fulfill these quests, you must first get to the quest giver, then to the target location, then back to the quest giver. Even with a fast-travel option, you’re spending a great deal of time just running through the world (and perhaps it says something that I’d rather fast-travel than enjoy the scenery…). This brings me back to the genericness of the world: if the world is not sufficiently compelling, I don’t want to spend any time in it. Even if the combat is fun, forcing me to grind in between instances of it renders that fun an occasional welcome distraction rather than the core activity of the game as it should be. This is the same sort of problem I mentioned in my post about Dungeons of Dredmor: allowing video game conventions to dictate how a particular genre should be laid out. If the combat is the heart of the game, why not consider a series of instanced combat encounters linked together by RPG dialogue scenes? You could certainly still weave a story and paint a world within those constraints. I only played a tiny bit of Gladius, but really appreciated its approach, relying on the core gameplay mechanic to provide the vast majority of the gameplay.

I can still imagine myself playing KoA:R were I to end up with a cheap or free copy, but I just can’t reconcile the time cost with the rewards provided. I just can’t abide “suffering through” interstitial parts to get to the juicy core elements right now. I realize that what I might define as grindy and interstitial another might view as necessary to the gestalt experience, but I think there’s a great deal to be gained by distilling what’s fun about your game and making that the core activity.